Yesterday, Louie French won the Old Bexley & Sidcup by-election with 51.5% of the vote. Labour came second with 30.9%, the Lib-Dems and Green polled very poorly, both losing their deposits. But it was the vote for Reform UK which caught my eye. Why? Because despite coming third, they really didn’t make much of an impression.
UKIP had taken just over 18% of the vote here in 2015, coming a very close third to Labour. That collapsed to less than 4% in 2017, and neither they nor the Brexit Party, (Reform UK’s predecessor), stood in 2019. In this by-election. Reform, UKIP, Heritage and the English Democrats between them polled just 9.3%. Reform, arguably the most organised and highest profile of those parties standing on a platform to the right of the Conservatives, secured just 6.6%.
A few months ago, angry Conservative voters in the Buckinghamshire seat of Chesham and Amersham dealt the party a hearty slap. Concerns about development of greenfield sites and HS2, exacerbated by a poorly targeted campaign saw the Conservative vote collapse and the Liberal Democrats win with a huge swing.
Old Bexley and Sidcup is not Chesham and Amersham. The concerns are different. Older residents are more likely to worry about their children finding a home in the area they grew up in, because there are few Council homes available. These voters are also concerned with the seemingly intractable problem of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats, rather than HS2 destroying farmland.
However, Old Bexley is an affluent South East London suburb with high levels of home ownership ,comparable with any home counties high street for posh delicatessens, swanky beauty parlours and good restaurants. There are some serious money executive homes amongst the classic, inter-war, London suburban housing so common in these areas.
The Conservative Party response to losing Chesham and Amersham is clear to see. The by-election was well organised by a London team that has just out-performed expectations in the London Mayoral and Assembly elections. This is in no small part because of the weight of votes cast in Bexley. The new Assembly representative for Bexley and Bromley sits on a healthy majority of over 50,000, taking over 50% of votes cast.
From speaking to the Association Chairman, who has been around since the adoption of the sadly deceased former MP, James Brokenshire, it is clear the members and councillors are active. They canvass regularly and they earn the votes cast for them.
Tice takes his chances
Nevertheless, Reform put up Richard Tice, their party leader. He’s a slick media performer and plays the Faragist, anti-immigration card with a softer tone than his erstwhile boss. The campaign was masterminded by Alex Wilson, a veteran of East London politics, having been a councillor in Redbridge, for the Conservatives of course. The Polling Day message was simple. “Have you Had Enough”?
Clearly designed to appeal to the “Leave” voting electorate, Tice went all in on the small boats transporting “illegal migrants” across the Channel, to whom he would not grant asylum, and the “vile traffickers. What fate he had planned for them was left unsaid.
But compared with Chesham and Amersham, the Reform vote really didn’t reach a level which could be described as breaking through. Alex Wilson (him again) secured 1.1% of the vote as the Reform candidate in June. Tice’s 6.6% is only just enough for him to have his deposit returned, and was well behind Labour. Surely to count this as a success, Reform would have to have achieved something closer to UKIP’s 2015 performance?
Is the UKIP/Brexit Party/Reform effect fading?
Was this just a phenomenon amongst a certain type of, predominantly, Conservative voting electors, who were so incensed by David Cameron reneging on his promise to put the Lisbon Treaty to a referendum that they gave Farage the platform on which he built his career? Has the vote to leave the EU taken the sails out of that campaign, apart from its last hurrah in the ultimately pointless 2019 European Parliament elections?
Chesham and Amersham would certainly point to the potential for minor parties to exploit anger amongst those who would traditionally support the ruling party, especially on local issues where they feel their voice is being ignored. But the result for the Conservatives yesterday suggests that this is far more of a worry for the party than what seems to be a small and probably declining number of disgruntled voters on the right.